24 November 2014 AEST
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The Australian Deaf Community

The Australian Deaf Community is a network of people who share a language and culture and a history of common experiences. It is similar to an ethnic community. Members socialise, play sport and sometimes worship together and join together in political lobby groups.

National Week of Deaf People - PerthThe Deaf community is well organised. There are national, state and local networks of sporting and recreation groups, social groups such as senior citizens and mother's clubs, special interest groups such as craft groups, and advocacy organisations.

Who belongs to the Deaf community?

Those who usually belong:
  • People who use Auslan (whether they are deaf or hearing).
  • People deaf from birth or an early age.
  • CODAs (hearing Children of Deaf Adults).
  • Some hearing people who live and work with Deaf people.
Those who do not usually belong:
  • Anyone who does not value Auslan. It is acceptable to be less than fluent in Auslan but one must value and respect the language.
  • People who lose their hearing in adult life.
  • Some people who have been deaf from birth but who have never learned Auslan.

Why do some people belong but others do not?

The single most unifying factor of the Deaf community is the use of Auslan (Australian Sign Language). The physical fact of deafness does not automatically mean membership of the Deaf community: not all people who are deaf use Auslan. It also does not matter how deaf a person is. A common assumption is that only severely or profoundly deaf people use Auslan but this is not in fact true - many deaf members of the Deaf community are only moderately deaf.

Some members of the Deaf community are hearing people, in particular people who grew up in the Deaf community because their parents are Deaf. A hearing person who is an accepted member of the Deaf community will, without exception, use Auslan.

Perceptions of deafness tend to be very different between people who have always been deaf and, on the other hand, those who experience hearing loss as a later-life trauma. People who have always been deaf tend to experience deafness as a normal part of life and to identify with the Deaf community. A person who becomes deaf later in life is more likely to see themselves as a hearing person who now has difficulty hearing, and they do not usually identify with Auslan and the Deaf community.

This does not mean that a person who becomes deaf as an adult cannot belong to the Deaf community, or that all people who are born deaf automatically become members. The key factor is the use of Auslan - to belong to the Deaf community one must value and respect Auslan and use it, although degrees of fluency vary.

Do Deaf people have to choose between the Deaf community and the hearing community?

No.

Many people who are not familiar with the Deaf community imagine that Deaf people have created or "disappear" into the Deaf community because they cannot cope with or they reject "the hearing world". This is a myth.

Most Deaf people have hearing families, and they continue to be part of their family. Most Deaf people also work with hearing people. They go shopping, to the bank, the doctor, the dentist and the hairdresser, to the movies, the pub, ten pin bowling and other recreational venues, and to church. They buy houses and cars and they fly on planes for interstate and overseas travel, and they stay at hotels, youth hostels and caravan parks. All these activities tend to be hearing dominated and therefore part of "the hearing world".

Most Deaf people are effectively bicultural. They interact with both Deaf and hearing communities and cultures. This is very similar to people who belong to ethnic communities in Australia : they belong to both their ethnic community and to the wider Australian community. They choose to spend more or less time or to identify more or less strongly with one or the other, but they still belong to and interact with both.

Many Deaf people marry other Deaf people and spend a large proportion of their social, sporting and leisure time within the Deaf community. This is because other Deaf people and the Deaf community afford them an understanding and acceptance of who they are, and because communication there is much more smooth and comfortable and without the effort that it is with people who cannot sign.

For a Deaf person (and for hearing people who embrace the Deaf community and culture) there is a great deal of overlap between Deaf and hearing cultures. There are things about the Deaf community and culture that are distinctive to it and different from the hearing community and culture. But most Deaf people live in two communities and cultures; some equally in both, others to a greater or lesser extent in one or the other. Very few are exclusively culturally Deaf or hearing.

How big is the Deaf community?

There are no definitive statistics for how many people belong to the Deaf community.

Recent estimates have ranged from Hyde and Power (1991) who calculated that there were 15,400 Deaf users of sign language, and possibly another 15,000 hearing users; to Johnston (2004) who estimated that there were 6,500 Deaf Auslan users. Johnston 's calculations focused on native signers (those who have signed from birth or early childhood), however Deaf Australia perceives that the community of Auslan users is much larger than those who are native signers, since so many learn the language as teenagers or young adults.

Until a more definitive answer can be given, Deaf Australia continues to rely on the Hyde and Power study as the most reliable indicator of the size of the Australian Deaf community.

Is the Deaf community international?

Wherever a Deaf person travels in the world, they can usually find other Deaf people and a Deaf community. Many Deaf people arrive in a new city and go to the local Deaf club to meet other Deaf people.

Deaf people also regularly meet internationally at meetings, conferences and sporting events.

Sign language is not universal - each country has its own distinctive sign language. However, over the years, Deaf people who regularly meet internationally have developed an International Sign system (which is based on gestures and borrowed signs from widely-known sign languages such as American Sign Language) that they use at meetings and conferences.

Even when two Deaf people from different countries do not know International Sign they can usually find a way to communicate with a mixture of their own sign languages, gesture and mime. Characteristically, this communication happens much more quickly and easily than communication between two hearing people who do not speak the same language.

People who travel and meet people in Deaf communities in other countries soon notice that Deaf people and Deaf communities in many ways are similar all over the world. Whatever the nationalities involved, there is an underlying similarity of experience and culture, a particular "Deaf" way of looking at the world and responding to it, of accepting and interacting with each other, and even topics of conversation - many of the issues that concern Deaf people are universal.

This transnational experience is one of the most uniquely special and satisfying aspects of being a Deaf person who belongs to a community and culture that transcends geographic, economic, social, religious and political boundaries.

References

Hyde, M., & Power, D. (1991). The use of Australian Sign Language by Deaf people (Research Report No. 1). Nathan: Griffith University , Faculty of Education, Centre for Deafness Studies and Research.

Johnston, T. (2004). W(h)ither the Deaf community? Population, genetics, and the future of Australian Sign Language. American Annals of the Deaf (5), 358-77.

A Note on the use of the capital D

The Deaf community is considered to be a linguistic and cultural minority group, similar to an ethnic community. Just as we capitalise the names of ethnic communities and cultures (eg Italian, Jewish) we capitalise the name of the Deaf community and culture. Since not all people who are physically deaf use Auslan and identify with the Deaf community, the d in deaf is not capitalised when we are referring to all deaf people or the physical condition of not hearing.


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